To catch something magical in this modern world can be pretty difficult. We go about our daily lives and routine rituals, with "finding magic" not really a pressing priority on the list. Yet, we are all seeking a bit more excitement in our lives. The nine to fivers yearn to fill their weekends with wild times, while others make each day an adventure, perhaps a riskier one.
I guess you could say, we are all trying to 'catch lightning in a bottle'. While the literal meaning is a near impossible task, it seems to be an appropriate name for the transformational music and arts festival that once brought magic in our lives.
This is a difficult review to write, about a festival that has changed the lives of many, inspired thousands, and shaped an entire subculture. We are grateful for the memories, the growth, and the incredible art, but to sugarcoat the experience rather than suggest improvements is to go against everything LIB exists for in the first place. This is the voice for those who have love for LIB, for those who appreciate it, but have seen their beloved Memorial Day tradition go down a much different path.
Lightning in a Bottle festival just rung in its eleventh year, having grown profusely since its humble beginnings as a 150-person birthday party in 2000. Hosted by Do Lab, the event producers have played a heavy role in influencing the creativity of not only LIB, but other events over the last decade, from conscious gatherings to international festivals like Coachella. Do Lab's attention to detail and visually-stimulating production has set the bar higher for event production for the better, even inspiring new gatherings to pop up throughout the year.
Yet the festival known as Lightning in a Bottle a few years ago seems to be almost a completely different festival today.
In its peak from 2010 to 2013, the four day music, arts, and yoga festival was held at Oak Canyon Park in Southern California's Silverado, commonly referred to as "Irvine Lake". While not being as high on the radar as massive festivals that Insomniac Events, LiveNation, or Goldenvoice were throwing, but still popular enough to bring top acts such as Pretty Lights and The Glitch Mob, LIB was a perfect escape.
To start with a brief recap of the venue, Irvine Lake's gorgeous green ranch adjacent to a gleaming lake made a beautiful location for tranquil days of reflection and growth. Although LIB takes place late in May, the venue's natural makeup was not overwhelmed by heat nor dust, with the Orange County location playing a helpful part as well. This allowed LIB'ers to enjoy the array of inspirational speakers, fun workshops, and physically taxing activities such as yoga or dancing, without feeling overly drained.
In addition to the favorable climate and foliage, the smaller location made it a breeze to get around on foot, visiting all the quirky villages and camps, saving time for more thrills and less hills. Perhaps even more importantly, the intimate environment was prime for meeting up with friends, seeing familiar faces all around, and bonding tightly as a community.
And what an empowering community it was.
Influenced by Burning Man culture, as well as a genuine love for music and art, Do Lab provided a space free of boundaries and open to all possibilities. Our beloved LIB was a place to be free, to be completely honest with yourself and with others, without judgments or past baggage. While the average person waits until Halloween to dress up, at LIB you could be whichever fantastical character you imagined. Or, you could run around naked, if it liberates you!
You could have a festival name, a persona that you acquired at these events full of like-minded individuals that were also seeking that magic. The term "transformational" is used to describe several festivals like LIB because you are transforming from our society's rules of how you should be into your true self.
Like-minded individuals -- that phrase sticks out too, because it encapsulates the essence of a strong community. All the individuals at LIB had a love of art and music... because why else would you go? Not because it was the "cool" thing to do, but because they prefer the talent at LIB to other concerts full of commercial music or other nonsense full of the generic. Have you ever been to a small show to see your favorite band, and all the most dedicated fans are singing the words together? It's absolutely liberating because you are all on the same page. You're surrounded by fellow [insert band here] fanatics, and not only is it fun as ever, but you'll definitely bond with each other and meet some new friends.
However, despite all the whimsical silliness and similar musical tastes, there was something more important; much more important, actually. At smaller conscious festivals, we notice an overall sense of respect for one another. This is the real key that separates "conscious" festivals from regular concerts or events.
The word conscious means exactly what it sounds like. Anyone can notice the unconscious atmosphere at most concerts, or any large gatherings for that matter. Do you know why you tend to avoid large crowds? Of course you do - because you may get pushed, stepped on, spilled on, or anything else negative involving unconscious people (which is sadly the general population). As women we may get unwanted grabs and feels, which even occurs at dance music raves that promote "peace, love, unity, respect" (yes, that actually used to exist). As men we may get a brawny stranger trying to pick a fight with us. We may get the items in our pockets stolen, or a creeper that follows us around. I'm using broad stereotypes, but you cannot deny it occurs often at large music events.
Just writing about these negative occurences put me in a bad mood, so let's talk about the good. LIB at Irvine Lake was an amazing place where almost every single individual was there for the greater good. We know that the awesome speakers, impressive workshop leaders and enigmatic artists came from a place of love, as well as the rest of the teams of people helping produce the event, but even more special was how the attendees mirrored this love back. How rare that is, for a respectful place like this to exist. Not only are the Burners, the campers, the outdoorsy folk, the artists of all trades, the dreamers and the others all dope kinds of people, but the respectfulness brought the energy to an even higher level.
Thus, you can infer that this review comes from the heart. We love conscious festivals, the entire scene, the message, and the people that attend to have a meaningful time and let loose for the weekend. We love Do Lab, a production company that has played a powerful role in the growth of the conscious community... but, we also love LIB. Therefore, you could say this is an intervention; this is a cry for help; this is perhaps a warning message, for lack of a better phrase, to other potential festivals before they lose the core crowd that characterized the events in the first place.
In 2016, we experienced a drastically different festival, even having changed tremendously from last year.
Since leaving Irvine Lake, LIB shifted to Temecula for one year in 2013, before ultimately making its new home in Central California's San Antonio Recreation Area. Many attendees that have been with LIB since Irvine Lake have shared their feelings about the festival losing its magic not just in 2016, but in these past three years since moving. Personally, I was still able to have an amazing time last year, still noticing the grand scope of the festival but not letting the monstrous attendance for a transformational event get in the way of my own growing experience. This year it did.
There are a few factors that hindered my ability to have a "transformational experience," and the most obvious one is the amount of people.
LIB has grown to house 20,000 people, much more than just two years ago in 2014 at the same venue, and much more than Irvine Lake's few thousand capacity. [Edit: We have heard differing reports ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 people.] Yet this new crowd does not seem to exactly have the same aura of the respectful, creative, experienced, cool, lighthearted crowd that we see at most conscious campout gatherings. That old crowd certainly still exists at LIB, but it is only a small fraction of the whole, with the new wave of LIB'ers overpowering the character of the festival. With raucous individuals pouring into LIB as well as other festivals in the transformational community, it feels like having a few well-behaved kids in a wild classroom of twenty.
When I refer to the "new wave" of LIB'ers, this is not to say that every new person acts this way, so please keep that in mind. We all came in to this scene at one point and we all learn from each other. Additionally, make sure to read the Counterarguments and Suggestions at the bottom of this article! With that being said, we don't see the following occurences at other conscious festivals:
The new wave of LIB'ers doesn't pick up their trash. Unlike other massive concerts and raves that get trashed, conscious campout events are almost always "Pack it in, pack it out," meaning you are responsible for your own trash - not a hired cleanup crew. Even farther than "Leave No Trace", LIB prides itself on being a "Leave It Better" festival, and has been awarded the "Outstanding" award from A Greener Festival, a non-profit organization that commends festivals for their low environmental impacts.
This year's LIB'ers did not leave no trace, and they most certainly did not leave it better. Here's a picture from the madness:
A team of volunteers and helpers of Do Lab spent several long days picking up the trash from attendees this year. There was trash left throughout the festival, in addition to the camping areas. Based on this lack of care when it comes to trash, I seriously doubt many of these people were even recycling.
Not only does this impact the team of people, but imagine the impact on the Earth if every festival was like this. With several festivals occuring every weekend, and several thousand people at each event, we cannot underestimate the impact of our actions.
It is just a bit challenging to take an event seriously with talks on permaculture and environmental sustainability, even looking towards long-term progress to go even greener, when we can't even get people to throw away a piece of trash. These green initiatives and workshops are fabulous for spreading this knowledge, and thank you to the producers of these talks, but regardless, this is the reality of the situation.
One could argue that with the influx of so many new people, maybe the new wave of LIB'ers are used to attending other festivals where trash is picked up for them, and they just didn't read up on the website or social media to know to pack it out. Although LIB did disperse the word through several channels of communication, it is easier to pass on the law of the land through word-of- mouth when the festival doesn't grow so large so quickly.
We applaud the teams that worked long hours to take care of the waste, and assume Do Lab will surely ramp up the communication with new attendees next year (though I thought they already did enough to get the word out).
In addition to the lack of care for the environment, another thing that some of the new wave of LIB'ers is lacking is that above and beyond respect level we touched on earlier. Thankfully, a general sense of camaraderie remains throughout the event, but not nearly as much as before. I was purposefully physically pushed out of the way several times, which brought me back to my days of attending EDM massives where you looked out for yourself and your group only.
Now, let's not base an entire opinion on a few instances of being pushed, although it was a bit surprising. Other happenings included people fighting with flow artists, such as hoopers or poi spinners, because they were "in the way". Flowing is a form of expression, one of the most coveted pasttimes of our community, and as long as you are flowing outside of the crowd with safe space around you, no harm is done. We also saw this lack of above and beyond respect with the three hour car line to get in, with people constantly cutting the line, making it grow miles longer, as well as throughout the festival experience, from arrival to even leaving the event Monday.
These are just a few examples of an unfortunate shift towards embracing the culture of a massive music festival rather than a community that treats each other like family, but I suppose it's inevitable. We cannot blame the Do Lab for some attendee's actions, with such a large amount of people attending this year.
Cheers to those who were pleasant neighbors and attendees; there is no way that this describes everyone or the entire event! But noticing these issues now is a chance to nip it in the bud. We are probably just used to the extra-friendly, extra-generous attitude that we encounter at other conscious gatherings. Though a notable amount of LIB'ers definitely keep the warm spirit alive, we see the percentage of the whole declining.
To cut LIB some slack, it would be rare for any event to maintain that former sense of community or family with such a large crowd. That entire part of LIB, an essential component of its culture, is gone. If the number of new wavers overpowers the people who gave LIB personality, then we cannot even blame the new crowd for not knowing what LIB is all about.
The overcrowding resulted in tensions running high, which is what seemed to be the case at this packed, oversold event. The stages were so filled with people overflowing out of the tents that it looked like a T Shirt that didn't fit. Getting your group through the swarms of people took more effort than actually enjoying the music. Yes, festivals are always crowded, and yes, getting large groups around takes technique. We've been doing this for years. However, the amount of people this year stepped over the line.
To hone in the point, the amount of people may have been the most influential factor in the downfall of LIB's identity as a conscious festival. But why? What does the amount of people have to do with it, if LIB still had the same wide supply of yoga classes, personal growth workshops and motivational acts?
The problem is not so much the amount, but the type of people that come with rapid expansion. Growing the festival this fast is kind of like running a social media account, to give an analogy us millennials can relate to. Let's say you have a small gardening business. If you grow your social media accounts slowly with organic followers (not paid) then you'll have a community of avid gardeners. On the other hand, if you pay for a bunch of followers and go from 500 to 10,000, you are going to have random followers, from spam accounts to web cam girls to hackers, etc.
If that analogy was too far off, I can get real. Some of these new people are coming from urban nightclubs where Do Lab posts fliers. The nightclubs may have great music, but not usually a conscious crowd. The new wave is also flowing in from EDM shows and raves, where trash is thrown on the ground, people are packed in tight spaces and drugs run rampant.
A significant portion of the people are also coming from Coachella, where the Do Lab hosts its own stage, but 'Chella is a festival where capitalism and mainstream music run highest. I could write an entire article on the commercial, elitist atmosphere at Coachella, but most people are already well aware of the ambience there.
And that's perfectly ok! Coachella doesn't market itself as a transformational experience, or a conscious gathering. Coachella is a place to deal with those huge crowds, those people that came just for the party and don't know which artists are playing, who don't mind spending $18 on a burrito. They often litter, which is why Coachella hires cleanup crews. They draw lines around the camping areas so people don't have to figure it out for themselves. But people shrug off the drugged up sixteen year olds at Coachella as an exchange to see various legendary artists perform; that's the tradeoff you make.
One man who has been five years in a row to LIB recounted the conscious atmosphere at the old LIB:
"We used to make the hike to the Temple because it was worth it. It was special. You'd get up to the top of the hill and there were always people there, playing instruments, or praying. That was the first time I saw people doing yoga at a festival, and I never wanted to go back to another rave again. They still have the Temple at LIB but it's not the same anymore... It used to be alive. It was spiritual."
Although I'm a self-proclaimed basshead, the laidback, spacious atmosphere at the Woogie stage made it the most comfortable stage to be at. You could converse with your friends, have space to rest, and spread your wings. The house and techno beats dropped by Lane 8, Guy Gerber, and Lee Burridge were some of our favorites!
As usual, the Lightning Stage brought a colorful mix of talented bands, eclectic artists like William Close and The Earth Harp Collective, far out groups like the lyrical Vokab Company, full fledged performances like the Lucent Dossier Experience, or individual artists like Chet Faker. With such a wide variety of artists at the Lightning Stage, it was hit or miss, but provided a diverse selection for everyone.
Contrasted with the highs of the Lightning stage and the Woogie, the beloved Thunder stage was riddled with a lot of trap music the whole weekend. We've noticed this at an array of shows and festivals in the community, not just LIB. What happened to future bass, to liquid bass, to glitch hop? Bass music can be infinitely versatile, yet almost every headlining bass artist after sundown played trap music. There's nothing wrong with hip-hop influences, or even with trap music in general. But when we start hearing innovative DJs like Minnesota or Mr. Carmack start letting go of their unique styles and shift towards trap music, when we start hearing every act play trap music, and when we start hearing radio remixes throughout LIB, something is up. We go to these festivals to get away from the radio tracks. Yet it seems like the artists themselves are succumbing to mass appeal. (Rihanna's "Work"? Really?!).
With so many artists gracing the different stages and interactive areas at LIB, you can take every perspective with a grain of salt. What you can realize is that the type of crowd that attends a country show, or a hip hop show, or a Burner event, is going to contribute to the overall mood and facilitate a different experience. In my own experience, it was challenging to engage in a talk on Consciousness when there's a trap fest happening within ear's reach.
To return to a positive note, the DJs spinning at the mini stages, Pagoda Bar and Favela Bar, spun genuinely rad sets! When the focus is on the booming, boastful mainstages, the bar DJs put in the extra effort to showcase sets full of original tracks and styles.
Hosted in Bradley, CA, the San Antonio Recreation Area where LIB is held has several pros and cons.
For the benefits, the enormous venue can fit thousands of festival- goers across its vast, wide-spread area of land. The stunning view from atop the rolling hills is picture-esque, especially as the sun sets along the horizon. Additionally, the event is held right in the middle of Central California, making it accessible to both Northern and Southern California, as well as neighboring states.
For the cons, the grandiose venue size that was listed as a pro can also be a drawback. Miles of dusty hills with greatly spread out stages can most definitely make the trek from the campgrounds a mission.
Truly, it's not so much the distance that is flawed, although several people noted that they wished everything was closer together. The difficult part is the intense heat that makes the walks that much more grueling. Hosting the event during Memorial Day Weekend in that location brings temperatures close to 100 degrees, making it tough to experience day activities and artists. We are not one to complain about elements as they are all a part of the fabulous festival, and you've got to have thick skin to attend 4-day long events! (Ever been to Burning Man?) But unfortunately, the mix of the huge venue paired with the heat and distance this year resulted in us missing some of the best speakers and performers in the day, choosing to save energy much of the time as the sun will zap your energy.
Regardless, how can you not have an epic time at LIB, when all your friends are there to celebrate, paired with total freedom at campgrounds?
When it comes to "total freedom", we refer to the ability to camp where you want, to play music whenever you want, and to build creative shade structures. Thus, the renegades come out to play.
With our DJ friends spinning 12 hour sets back to back on end, LIB is home to some of the best renegade stages. You can frolick around the entire venue at any hour, with never a dull moment spent. Intriguing characters and eardrum-breaking speakers will lure you in, and you'll find yourself sharing stories with new friends until 10 in the morning.
When the main grounds get too overwhelming or you tire yourself out, you'll be pumped to head back to camp to dance the night (and the morning, and tomorrow) away with the cool cats of LIB. We even had one guy come through and freestyle at our camp, annhilating the mic!
I've read negative reviews of festivals before, and all I could think about was that the writer must be a pessimistic downer that only looked at the dark side of things. Or perhaps they had an individual experience that was unfavorable, and decided to take down the entire festival, like a snobby reviewer on Yelp. Both in life and at massive gatherings, you really have to remember to focus on the positives and soak in the goodness to be happy.
However... (I know you were waiting for that "but" to pop up, and here it is!)... personally, it was not possible for me to write a review and say that LIB did a great job as a transformational gathering specifically. Yes, the positives are blatant -- what talent and hard work the performers and producers pour into the event! What top notch production, quality of entertainment and unmatched ethos the event has! Hands down, they did a stellar job of throwing a fantastic concert with a medley of musical styles, passionate artists, and powerful contributions from the hundreds of people involved in the event.
The only significant criticism we're making is that this year's LIB was not a transformational gathering; it was a party. Period. I am not only speaking for myself but for the dozens and dozens of LIB'ers I have spoken to from past years and present, that are waiting for someone to admit what everyone else is afraid to reveal, like a magician who isn't so sly with his tricks but you clap anyway.
From our perspective, it felt like a massive dance music rave like EDC, mixed with the Coachella crowd. There were brief moments of brilliance like the mentality that inspiring speakers brought, or the twinkle in a performer's eye, or the joy on a beautiful girl's face... but the overall party vibes of the event slightly overshadowed these potentially introspective glimpses in time.
There is an elephant in the room, and Do Lab must surely know it. Yet now for the most mystifying plot twist of all: Did LIB ever claim to really be a conscious festival in the first place?
Are we just assuming that a festival filled with yoga, meditation, motivational speakers and green initiatives would be a conscious gathering? Was the Do Lab stage at Coachella for the past decade a dead giveaway, that the goal was just about targeting that party crowd to begin with?
Well, for one, I interviewed Do Lab co-founder DeDe Flemming last year and he said that the vision and goal when they started LIB was to create a "visually stimulating experience". He said they wanted to create something that was "more than just music". Ok, still no hippie talk there. Maybe we were wrong to assume a weekend of self-reflection and spiritual growth? I should've known from the moment I saw the words "Boutique Camping"...
But wait a minute. They definitely refer to themselves as a "transformational festival", and market themselves in that way. Furthermore, we can all take a glance at the profound schedule of activities that include talks on spirituality, consciousness, self growth, environmental sustainability, and much more that screams "conscious gathering".
So let's do some research. Upon reviewing the Do Lab's website, their vision established in January 2016 is as follows:
Do Lab's Vision:
Through art, music and celebration, festival communities inspire change in both the individual and society to create a more peaceful, planetary culture.
What I took from the Vision is that they want us "to create a more peaceful, planetary culture". Peaceful?! How would shifting to a massive venue of thousands, marketing to the rave scene and the mainstream crowd, and overpacking the grounds be more peaceful?
Again, we honor the intentions of Do Lab by hosting community building workshops and spreading environmental knowledge, but we must focus on the truthful and realistic outcome.
On Do Lab's website, there is a new section that basically acknowledges this shift in the event that we all notice:
"Our goals and points of focus have gone through a number of iterations over the years, and although we have never published an official mission, our guiding principles have remained consistent. With a renewed focus going forward, we would now like to take the opportunity to, for the first time, clearly state our mission and vision to you, our community, and the world. We want to share our principles so the growing number of people Do LaB touches can better understand where we’re coming from... To commemorate this evolution of our brand we are launching this new website, logo, tag line and a shift to a simpler name, Do LaB.... Do LaB is an events company. No matter the size or what its called, we love to throw a good party."
You can read the entire blog article and mission statement here, but the point is obvious: Do Lab is an events company that likes to throw a good party, as they stated verbatim. They are not trying to make LIB a conscious experience.
As attendees, let's not be like a clingy boyfriend or girlfriend that won't accept the breakup. Do Lab is solidifying themselves as an events company and an events company only. They are builders and designers. They are rightfully attempting to grow and expand, for reasons you can judge for yourself.
But what if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and present another counterargument: is expansion really a bad thing? Why can't everyone experience an amazing weekend? I'm certainly not a fan of excluding people that want to experience these conscious gatherings for the first time; no one likes a festival veteran that acts "better than thou". If more and more people attend LIB, couldn't more people experience the joys of meditation, of a hoop dance class, of a fire ceremony, or a breathtaking performance? Wouldn't more people be conscious, free- thinking individuals?
Unfortunately, that's not how it works. If the festival expanded more slowly, the culture may have been passed on from elders and the event would still have its essence. People would understand that you don't throw trash on the ground, you don't push, and that not everything is about drugs and partying. It was a place you could bring your small children, your family. In reality, the drastic and sudden leap to pull in crowds of hungry festival-goers has resulted in less magic and more mass appeal. The more is not always the merrier.
By all means you can have a wonderful time at LIB. You carve your own path, choose your own adventures, and there is a plethora of activities to engage in. It's a pretty fun, wild ass time. Just don't go expecting a conscious gathering, or an intimate experience.
Every company needs to grow, and Do Lab has sure done a marvelous job at growing. They've simply changed the identity and persona of LIB... remarkably.
It appears as if LIB is seeking to become an international festival that appeals to all, which is fine. We just have to understand this as attendees, that it is more of a party than an intimate camp gathering. Therefore, I don't think LIB is open to changing anytime soon.
Nonetheless, if they did seek to bring back that core niche of LIB'ers that enjoyed the festival for years, and actually be transformational, I would suggest the following:
Desert Hearts Festival is an excellent example of a festival that has stayed true to its character. By capping the attendance, DH has been able to maintain its luscious, beautiful venue and even more importantly, the famous DH vibes. With the intimate environment, it has manifested into one of the tightest communities, and the culture is still alive. Even the most inebriated party animals at DH will throw their cigarette butts away.
If you must have LIB during Memorial Weekend in an extremely hot and dusty area, then at least find a different venue that keeps the areas more compact and closer together, so that the days are not wasted hanging in the shade; that is, if you really do wish attendees to be able to make the most of all the impressive workshops and world-renowned artists. The schedule of activities was extensive, and smaller venues allow us to enjoy more of the event, rather than embark on a pilgrimage. I'm not saying we can't handle a little dust or heat, with the weather being unpredictable, but the producers can control the size, location, and dates of a venue they choose. The shift would benefit everyone's experience, from the entertainment to the camping to the entering and exiting of the event.
Last year Do Lab started Woogie Weekend, a spin-off of the Woogie stage at LIB, taking place in Irvine Lake. Hooray for going back to Irvine Lake and downsizing, but Woogie is more of a deep house and techno party than a conscious festival. However, Woogie still has culture because it doesn't try to be something it's not, so we knew what to expect, and the event brought a rowdy, good ol' time. The weekend warriors that danced through the mud and rain last year bonded due to its small size!
So, host a smaller Lightning in a Bottle, perhaps twice a year in the Spring and Fall when it is cooler. The villages, interactive spaces, and variety of music and activities are what makes LIB what it is, so Woogie isn't that similar, though it is held at LIB's old home, Irvine Lake. Perhaps the talent at this smaller LIB would be more underground; I'm sure Do Lab is visionary enough to produce something utterly prolific. You guys can still maintain the giant LIB at the San Antonio Recreation Center, but can we get a David and you keep the Goliath?
Alternatively, what about curating a more mainstream festival based off the Lightning Stage, and then producing a weirder, more underground Thunder Bass event? The attendees of each single event would bond closer together through like-minded preferences, we would form our own prideful clans, and the option to still attend the mecca in Bradley would be available.
The possibilties are as high as the sky, but it all comes down to the vibrations that Do Lab seeks to permeate. Big, bold, and in your face? Yes, LIB pulled off the extravagant affair in that regard.
Just remember, though, that when you choose the commercial route, you become like all the others. The most memorable moments we share are actually at the unique occasions, enchanted gatherings, and far-out festivals. The rest of the massives begins to merge together in America's latest rat race to dominate the festival market, separating the "un" from the forgettable.
In the end, it's the respect from a tight community of people, the tasteful musical selection, and the appreciation of our earth and our well-being that contributes to an extraordinary evening or weekend.
With that being said... I'll see you at the renegade!
Sincerely written by...